This story is a two-part series. Read Part I of the series here.

Assigned female at birth, Haji never felt at home in his own skin. / All photos courtesy of Harjinder Kler.

Representation matters

In 2012, Harjinder Kler finally made the decision to come out as gay to everyone in his life and he did it the best way he knew how – via a Facebook post, in conjunction with National Coming Out Day.

This decision, said Haji, was a long time coming and he wished he had done it sooner. He originally meant to come out 12 years earlier in 2000, when he returned from university in New Zealand, but decided against it at the time. This, he would later realise, was a mistake.

“When I finally accepted myself a few months before I came back from New Zealand, I was going to come home and tell everybody. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about coming out when I got back, so I ended up talking to my former teacher – and she told me not to do it. And it’s not her fault, but it was the worst advice I ever got.

“Because that put me back in the closet. And when you’re in the closet, you get stuck in more dangerous situations with yourself,” said Haji. 

Like Gleni, Haji had always been sure of his identity. Designated female at birth, Haji never felt at home in his skin as a woman. But unlike Gleni, Haji had a harder time coming to terms with his sexuality. A combination of factors resulted in him needing more time to truly embrace his sexual orientation and gender identity, but he pinned it down to the lack of representation.

“Seeing that you could be THAT – that you could be what you are without shame. In this region, homosexuality, different genders, queerness – it was all part of the fabric of culture until Christianity and Islam came. It was a natural part of it. It’s in science. But the thing is, I grew up without seeing any or very little representation.

“I didn’t know that people like me were everywhere, really. Even in our society in Sabah, in Kota Kinabalu, there are people like me. Because it’s natural. And I didn’t know that.

“I don’t want to say people growing up now are more lucky, because everyone has their challenges; but I think things would have been different if I grew up later because you see so much representation now,” he said. 

Closet damage

Haji drove his point home by asking me a question: “If I ask you to live your life from today pretending to be a man, how would you cope? How would that affect your life? Your work, your psyche, your sleep, your relationships? Having to hide something and feeling so bad about it?”

Although I had considered this thought before, this question took me by surprise. As a cisgender, heterosexual woman, I had never truly confronted how I would feel if the tables were turned, because my sexual orientation and gender identity had always been accepted as the “norm.”

But being unable to be, on the outside, the person I knew I was on the inside, would undoubtedly ruin me. The more I thought about it, the more there was an alarming sense of doom. I would literally be living a lie. I would be pretending to be someone I am not. And as far as lies and pretenses go, I am not good at keeping up a charade because it takes on a mental and emotional toll. I simply would not be able to live a lie, and it would destroy me to be forced to.

And that was me just thinking about it – imagine the people who are forced to live with this reality every day, because society refuses to let them be themselves.

With that, Haji reiterated that nobody should be in the closet – that there shouldn’t even be a closet. And although I would have agreed with him anyway, the renewed perspective he gave me further cemented that conviction. 

It was a privilege to simply consider Haji’s question instead of having to live that reality every day. It was that reality that encouraged Haji to speak up and share his story now, the way he wished he had a decade earlier.

The “busybodiness” of the state

Haji (right most) pictured with his siblings and mother.

Haji acknowledged that he was in a privileged position when he decided to come out publicly. He was not at risk of losing his job, family or home. Although the reaction from Haji’s mother left much to be desired, Haji was still convinced it was the right move and continued to enjoy a healthy relationship with his family. Haji maintains that he wouldn’t be the person he is today without the love of his mother. 

However, he also acknowledged that his experience would have been very different if he was Muslim.

“This busybodiness of the state into people’s lives – it needs to stop. It’s a human right; dignity. Why the hate? We’re just human. We’re not killing people, we’re not corrupt.

“I do feel like I’m in a more privileged position to speak, so I should speak. More of us should speak because the more we see that we’re here, the more acceptance we will get. And sometimes people might be surprised to learn that someone is gay, who they had no idea is gay or bisexual or pansexual. Being gay is one thing, but there’s a whole spectrum and people don’t understand that,” said Haji.

Gender identity and sexuality is not a choice

Once, for a school project, I had to research prostitution in my city. That led me to several articles and stories about queer sex workers. Up until that point, I had never fully understood that a person’s sexuality and gender identity were not a choice.

A friend of mine had a hard time accepting their sexuality and even punished themself for it, because they tried so hard to deny they were gay and again tried so hard to like the opposite sex. But they just could not. Haji shared with me his discomfort at receiving attention from the opposite gender, and how his tendency was always same-sex. The article I read back in school detailed the religious upbringing of one sex worker, who had always felt at war with themselves because they did not identify as the person everyone told them they were.

People do not choose to be queer. Men do not choose to become women and vice versa. These are not decisions made based on influence from external factors – this is a question of a person’s identity, an innate knowledge that they simply cannot ignore, much less deny. As sure as straight people are of their sexuality, the same conviction lies with queer people. 

A common question asked to queer people is, “How did you know you were gay?” But Haji shared an experience where he asked the other person instead: “How did you know you were straight?”

As someone who is not subjected to the discrimination faced by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community because of my “socially reinforced” gender identity and sexuality, I take Haji’s words to heart: “I’m in a more privileged position to speak, so I should speak.”

Gleni and Haji have shared how destructive it could be to stay in the closet. The least that the rest of us could do is to hold space for queer people who are on their journey of coming to terms with who they are. We can do better as a society to at least make queer people feel safe enough to live their truth. 

It is not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with “queer lifestyle.” It is a question of the fundamental human right to live a safe life, free of discrimination and potential threat.

This article is a collaboration between Borneo Speaks and ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion. For more information on ARTICLE 19, please follow this link:

Edit: “Born female” was rewritten as “Designated female at birth”; while “formerly her” in brackets was removed in the first paragraph after the subheading “Representation matters”. We made the edits with reference to GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide for covering the transgender community. We apologise for earlier language use that might (and/ or) have invalidated the transgender individual mentioned in this article, as well as others.